A trying balance: determining the trier of fact in hybrid admiralty-civil cases.

Author:Kurland, Lily

    Although admiralty is among the law's oldest practices, it continues to play a vital role in modern litigation--whether that be through the transportation of goods on rivers or people on cruise ships. Prior to 1966, a federal court exercising its admiralty jurisdiction relied on a different set of rules than when it acted in law or equity. (1) To accommodate this distinction, cases were placed on separate dockets based on the court's source of jurisdiction. (2) This system resulted in procedural differences that set admiralty claims apart from others. (3) Admiralty cases were historically tried before the bench, (4) while common law claims, as protected by the Seventh Amendment, (5) were tried before a jury. (6) In an effort to modernize admiralty law and prevent the dismissal of valid claims for procedural technicalities, (7) the admiralty and civil dockets were unified in 1966. (8) "The resulting joinder provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply to all cases and make it possible to join both admiralty and nonadmiralty claims in a single action." (9) These cases are treated as hybrid admiralty-civil cases. While the 1966 unification corrected many of the dual-docket difficulties, it created two new problems of its own. (10) First, should a judge or jury determine the facts in a hybrid admiralty-civil case when each claim has an independent basis for federal jurisdiction? (11) Second, should the court undertake a separate analysis to determine the fact-finder in a hybrid case when the civil claim does not have an independent basis for federal jurisdiction? If so, what should this analysis look like and which trier of fact should determine the case outcome? The Supreme Court has failed to answer these questions, (12) leaving the circuits split. (13)

    This Note analyzes and evaluates the conflict among courts for both of these questions. Part I introduces the current conflict among circuits. Part II presents a general history of admiralty courts and law with an emphasis on its international development as a separate body of courts and its procedure before and after the 1966 unification. Part III explores the three approaches adopted by courts in determining the trier of fact when both the admiralty and civil claims have independent bases for federal jurisdiction. Part IV examines the approaches adopted by courts in determining the trier of fact when the civil claim does not have an independent basis for federal jurisdiction. Part IV, utilizing the approach adopted by many courts, separates those claims involving limitation of liability proceedings (14) from those without such an action. Part V analyzes the conflict among the courts and proposes an answer to each of the two questions above. When each claim comprising a hybrid admiralty-civil case has an independent basis for federal jurisdiction, the court should attempt to sever the claims so as to preserve the common law jury right and the admiralty bench trial. If the facts of the claims are so intertwined as to make severance impossible, the civil litigant's jury right must trump the traditional admiralty bench trial. When the civil claim in a hybrid case does not have an independent basis for federal jurisdiction, the traditional admiralty bench trial should be preserved in all but one situation--when the civil litigant is forced into federal court through the initiation of a limitation of liability proceeding.


    1. The Historical Development of Separate Admiralty Courts

      Admiralty law can be defined in both general and specific terms. (15) Generally, admiralty is the body of law "which regulates the activity of carrying cargo and passengers over water." (16) Specifically, admiralty rules "govern contract, tort, and worker compensation claims arising out of travel on or over water." (17) Maritime law (18) first developed along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (19) as a separate system of courts established to resolve conflict among the trading countries. (20) These rules, which were eventually codified, served as the foundation for the development of European admiralty law. (21) The "Mediterranean concept of maritime law" arrived in the United States through British colonialism. (22)

      In the American colonies, the English granted maritime jurisdiction to vice-admiralty courts. (23) After the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation granted to state courts original jurisdiction over matters of "prizes and piracy." (24) Congress had the authority to regulate these matters and establish an appeals court for "dealing with prizes and captures." (25) The state-federal admiralty dichotomy caused multiple problems (26) and "undoubtedly prompted the inclusion in the United States Constitution of federal power over admiralty and maritime matters." (27) Like the system adopted in the Articles of Confederation, however, the Constitution continued to separate admiralty courts and rules from common law courts. (28)

    2. The Development of American Admiralty Law

      The United States Constitution provides the federal courts with jurisdiction over six different types of controversies, treating admiralty law separately from other areas. (29) The Framers distinguished "all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority" (30) from "all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction." (31) The entire body of American admiralty law has developed from this one statement. (32) The Constitutional provision on admiralty, however, "defines only the judicial power of the Supreme Court." (33)

      In the First Judiciary Act, Congress granted federal district courts with the power to hear all maritime causes of action, (34) "yet saved to suitors in all cases 'the right of the common-law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it.'" (35) The "saving to suitors" clause "reserves the right of a plaintiff to bring his claims in any competent forum he chooses, provided that the forum is authorized to enforce the right conferred by maritime law." (36) This allows a party with a cause of action that may be brought in admiralty to bring a common law claim in state court or, if the claim has diversity of citizenship and the appropriate jurisdictional amount; in federal court without reference to admiralty. (37) However, by choosing to bring suit in a state common law court, the party forfeits the right to bring an admiralty cause of action.

      The "modern statutory formulation of the grant of admiralty jurisdiction," (38) codified in 28 U.S.C. [section] 1333, states:

      The district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of: (1) Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled. (2) Any prize brought into the United States and all proceedings for the condemnation of property taken as prize. (39) This statute preserves both federal jurisdiction over claims brought "in admiralty" and the state court access of the "saving to suitors" provision of the First Judiciary Act. (40) There are still limited circumstances, however, where federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty claims. (41)

    3. Procedural American Admiralty Law Prior to 1966

      "In the early days of the federal judiciary," one judge heard all admiralty, legal, and equitable claims even though the three areas were understood to have "separate courts." (42) As a result, "each federal court had three dockets or 'sides.'" (43) If a litigant brought a claim under the court's admiralty jurisdiction, "the case would be placed on the admiralty docket and would be processed through application of special admiralty rules." (44) Suits brought under the court's legal or equitable jurisdiction were placed on either the court's legal or equitable docket. (45)

      The divided docket system resulted in the development of divided rules of procedure. (46) The development of such rules in admiralty has rested mostly with the federal courts. (47) Perhaps "[t]he most important distinction between the law and admiralty 'sides'" (48) of the federal court is the trier of fact. (49) Historically, the court served as the trier of fact for suits in admiralty. (50) In Waring v. Clarke, the Supreme Court held that it was constitutionally permissible for the trial court to remain the trier of fact without violating the Constitution. (51) The Seventh Amendment, (52) the Court determined, does not guarantee a trial by jury for suits in admiralty. (53) The Court acknowledged that suits in admiralty are distinct from suits in common law, (54) and because the Seventh Amendment makes specific reference to "[s]uits in common law," (55) it does not apply in admiralty. (56)

      Historically, the admiralty trier of fact caused problems even within the distinct admiralty docket of federal courts. (57) As suggested earlier, (58) federal courts have had broad discretion in shaping admiralty law. Congress, however, statutorily granted jury rights for specific admiralty claims. (59) For example, the Jones Act grants a seaman injured in the course of employment the right to a trial by jury. (60) In Fitzgerald v. United States, (61) a seaman brought multiple admiralty claims against his employer, including a Jones Act claim. The Supreme Court weighed the Jones Act jury right against the historical use of bench trials in the other admiralty actions. (62) The Court determined that when admiralty claims with a jury right are factually intertwined with admiralty claims without a jury right, the jury should decide the facts of the entire case. (63) In its analysis, the Court noted,

      Where, as here, a particular mode of trial being used by many judges is so cumbersome, confusing, and time consuming that it places completely unnecessary obstacles in the paths of litigants seeking justice in our courts, we...

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